The university library is the beating heart of any academic institution, providing super important benefits to staff and students alike.
Like an iceberg, there's also far more going on beneath the surface than you might realise! Libraries are a lot more than books, computers, and printers (though they're important). At libraries, students can:
study and complete assignments at their own pace
find privacy and calm, especially if the university is in a busy city
work together with friends and classmates
learn how to research like a pro — usually in a class run by the librarians!
What do entry-level job look like?
So you think you'd like to work in a university library? Great! It's important to consider that entry-level librarian jobs are typically:
customer service focused
Large parts of the job include making sure patrons are following the library's rules or behavioral code of conduct, and assisting library users in finding books on shelves or information online.
You can expect to be talking to library patrons for most of your day! This is often really fun as you're helping people find books and information they need, but it can be tiring!
You'll be on your feet for lots of each day — patrolling study rooms, or collecting books, pushing book trolleys, and reshelving academic textbooks can be physically demanding.
called something like "Library Assistant" or "Library Technician"
Different library jobs at different universities will vary in how much of the above makes up a typical entry-level role.
but they're not an opportunity to read books!
This is a common misconception.
See some university librarians in action at Brock University, a Canadian university near Niagara Falls, in the video below:
Will I enjoy the job?
You'll love it if...
you enjoy problem-solving
Entry-level library jobs are often about answering questions like: "How do I print?", "Where is this book?", "Why can't I log in to my email/this article/this book/etc."
you like working with younger people
They aren't the only demographic, but younger adults typically are in the majority in a university, and who you'll work with most of the time.
you enjoy working in a team
Universities are complex, and university librarians tend to be specialized, so they need to cooperate!
You might not like it so much if...
you want control over your own timetable
Typical entry-level librarian jobs have different duties scheduled throughout the day, often by a supervisor or manager. You might have flexibility in your day, but you also might not!
you don't enjoy enforcing codes of behavior
A reality of entry-level librarian jobs is they're usually who have to remind library users of the rules!
you like taking on a range of roles
Job roles tend to be quite clearly defined, especially in large universities.
Who might enjoy being a university librarian?
Enjoys a variety of short-term projects
Loves controlling his own schedule
Enjoys meeting and talking to people every day
Is a creative problem-solver
Likes to know exactly what she needs to be doing during the day
Wants to work as more of an educator in the future
Who might be likely to enjoy a job as an university librarian?
How do I get ahead in my career?
To progress, you'll need a Masters degree. And they aren't cheap. This will probably be one of your biggest considerations when thinking about the university librarian career path.
Tuition for an MLIS (Masters in Library and Information Science) will vary slightly by the Institution, and by the country you're living in. Listed below are a few examples of highly rated Master's courses in Library Science in North America (details correct as of January, 2024):
University of Illinois' iSchool: tuition is US $14,578 (CAD $19,561) for US citizens, or USD $26,990 (CAD $36,217) for an international student (which means you're a citizen of a different country, e.g. Canada).
University of Washington's Information School: tuition is US $56,007 (CAD $75,153) regardless of your residence.
University of Toronto's Library and Information Sciences (LIS): tuition is CAD $12,349 (US $9202.94) for domestic students (i.e. Canadian citizens, and residents), or CAD $37,704.96 (US $28,099) for international students.
McGill University's School of Information Studies: tuition is CAD $3000 (US $2235.72) for residents of Quebec, CAD$6,056.64 (US $4513.65) for Canadians from outside of Quebec, and $11,934.07 (US$ 8893.74) for international students (i.e. from outside of Canada).
How will I specialize?
Remember the iceberg metaphor from before? There are actually many "kinds" of university librarians working behind the scenes in a wide range of different and fascinating job roles.
Many university librarian jobs are a combination of librarianship and another specialized interest. For example, a music librarian might have in-depth knowledge of a musical genre, group of artists or composers, or the music from a particular tradition or place in the world.
Typically, universities offering a broader range of subjects have a broader range of specialized librarians (and librarian jobs) available.
Some questions for you to think about:
Do you have a strong interest in a specific academic subject or discipline?
Do you enjoy teaching subjects to other people, or coaching others through complex decisions?
Do you enjoy designing workflows and processes?
Do you think you'd enjoy working with specialized software e.g. cataloging, or reading list systems?
Do you enjoy running structured search queries in online academic databases?
Typically you'd specialize through work experience — keep an eye out for working groups and projects to help you gain experience in different areas!
Looking ahead: what's possible in a university library?
You can browse job websites that focus completely on university and other librarian jobs. You can usually browse and filter by:
state and province
the level within the organization
the main focus of the job itself
Don't forget: the salaries quoted above are meant to be a guide — different institutions will offer different salaries to people at different stages of their careers.
Look through the job function filters using the websites linked above. Does anything stand out as particularly interesting?
Spending some time working in a library's frontline service will be invaluable to better understand if it suits you — especially as this career usually requires a postgraduate qualification to progress!